Thoughts: Battle Brothers

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Battle Brothers is the low-fantasy mercenary company management game I always wanted.

To explain how Battle Brothers works I might as well tell the story of Bjarni the Learner of the Face Manglers, one of the unassuming stars of my first successful mercenary company — because what Battle Brothers is ultimately about is telling stories. Every new company starts the game by picking a name and a wonderfully detailed banner (that you can eventually construct in game and have carried around by your sergeant) and then doing the training contract, where the remnants of the previous company get wiped out by a group of bandits leaving only three survivors. These survivors promptly trudge back to a nearby settlement on the world map, where they get a new contract from the town leaders to go back and finish the job by taking revenge on those dastardly bandits. This introduces you to the contract system, which forms your main source of income for most of the game: bandits, wolves and even scarier beasties will be plaguing a settlement, and you’ll be hired to hunt them down and stop them. Or to retrieve valuable items from monster lairs. Or to provide a simple escort for a trading caravan making its way across the continent to another settlement.  These contracts are procedurally generated from a list of templates, but the starting contract you get is scripted and holds your hand through the process of hiring new blood into the company — there’s always a pool of manpower available, although the quality of that manpower will vary based on their individual backgrounds — and outfitting them with some basic equipment.

Then, assuming you can beat the tutorial fight against the bandits, all hint of scripting disappears and the procedurally generated overworld takes over entirely: you travel to a town, stock up on supplies, and take a contract, most of which (but not all) will pitch you into at least one tactical combat segments where your company faces down anything from bandits to orcs to the ancient undead. In between you have to manage the company finances, mercenary morale, equipment and outfitting, and resolve the many, many narrative events that crop up along the way. Battle Brothers takes it easy on you to start, pitting you against small numbers of bandit thugs and zombie wiedergangers, but as you increase your company renown by winning battles and completing contracts you’ll be offered more difficult contracts against tougher opposition. You will inevitably take losses, and said losses have to be replaced. This is how Bjarni came to join the Face Manglers a scant twelve days after the company’s formation.

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Bjarni didn’t have the most promising of backgrounds for the mercenary life: he was an Apprentice, which gave him a 10% bonus to XP earned but which made him rather unremarkable stat-wise. Also, probably the most annoying thing Battle Brothers does is force you to hire new recruits blind: you can see their background which gives you some hint as to how their stats will be distributed — so a Farmer will generally have more Fatigue as they’re used to hard work, while a Monk will have a high Resolve thanks to their religious convictions — but none of that is guaranteed, and otherwise you’re completely blind as to how good a prospective new hire is until you’ve actually forked over their hiring fee. This was particularly nonsensical in the case of Bjarni, who turned out to have the Tiny trait; I have a really hard time believing my recruiting sergeant was so drunk1 he failed to notice Bjarni was a full foot shorter than the rest of that town’s population. Whatever, though; Bjarni was through the door now and at that point any warm body would do to fill up the shieldwall. At least the archers in the backline would have an easier time shooting over him2.

Anyway, shortly after Bjarni was hired the company took a contract to clear out the things responsible for disturbing a nearby graveyard. They’d done a few of these contracts before and they were quickly becoming routine; the culprits would turn out to be a dozen bandit thug graverobbers or corpse-eating nachzehrer ghouls, and the company was well-practiced at putting these enemies down. Bandit thugs wear little armour and rout quickly after the first two get their unprotected skulls smashed in by flails. Nachzehrers have an animal pack mentality and are quite easy to goad into charging straight into a prepared spearwall; they get bigger and tougher if they’re allowed to devour any corpses they find on the battlefield, but as long as you slowly move the shieldline forward to cover up the dead as you kill them they never get the chance. I wasn’t anticipating any trouble here.

But there was a little snag, In retrospect I probably should have been tipped off by the size of the reward being offered for this particular contract, which was more than double the usual rate: the enemies the company found itself facing were nachzehrers as expected, but instead of the pre-battle assessment of enemy strength saying there were “Lots of nachzehrers” (7+) or even “Many nachzehrers” (10+) I was for the first time put up against “A plethora of nachzehrers”.  Having little idea of what this meant, and foolishly feeling confident of an easy victory even if there were a few more enemies in there than the company was used to, I committed the company to battle.

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There were 21 nachzehrers. The company was outnumbered almost two to one, and — even worse — some of the nachzehrers showed up to battle in a pre-fed state, making them far meaner than the basic cannon fodder variant. The archers on the backline killed three before they made contact. The spearwall killed two and crippled four more before they forced their way past it. At this point they enveloped my front line and everything went straight to hell; basic nachzehrers don’t hit all that hard and are pretty easy to kill, but I couldn’t stop their compatriots from chowing down on the corpses and roiding out (which subsequently healed them to full health). Two of the company went down under the grey tide: Asgeir, a veteran of a dozen battles whose eventual fate was to end up as dinner for a nachzehrer, and the slightly more fortunate Bjarni. By the time Bjarni succumbed nearly every single frontliner in the shieldwall was nursing a temporary, lasting injury of some kind, but I’d managed to rout most of the smaller nachzehrers, leaving the company veterans to tank the two big ones; they didn’t get to Bjarni’s body. Any of your mercs who are reduced to 0HP and don’t take an obviously fatal injury (decapitations, brains pureed by a flail, that kind of thing) have a chance of getting back up again after the battle is over. And Bjarni, being a tough SOB, did exactly this.

Except, in a curious case of art mimicking other art, the Tiny Bjarni was now also missing his nose. This is due to the permanent injury system: anyone who gets downed during a fight and survives incurs a randomly generated permanent injury. These injuries range from the niggling — a missing finger, say, or brain damage3 — to something so crippling that you instantly pension the merc off regardless of their survival. Bjarni’s nose-hole fell squarely in the middle of this spectrum; it didn’t affect his melee ability, but it did knock 10% off his Fatigue cap. Fatigue is one of the most important stats in Battle Brothers as every single action in the game, from swinging your weapon to simply moving from one tile to another, builds up fatigue, and if a given action would put you over the fatigue cap you simply can’t do it. The fatigue cap is reduced with each piece of equipment your merc has on — a chainmail shirt will only reduce the cap by 10, but a heavy coat of plates will incur a whopping penalty of -40 — and so any further reduction due to injury is kind of a big deal, especially since, once built up, fatigue is bled off very slowly at a flat rate of 15 per turn, which is less than what it costs to make most attacks. If you don’t manage fatigue properly and you don’t have specialised perks or attributes for getting rid of it, hitting the fatigue cap will render your merc completely incapable for a turn or more as they get their breath back — and even then they’ll only have recovered enough to do one action before they hit the cap again. Fatigue is used to balance a lot of the weapons in the game (more destructive weapons require more fatigue to use) as well as spicing up some of the enemy types – undead, for example, ignore fatigue (and morale) completely, so while they’re quite slow and take horrendous losses in the first few rounds of combat they’ll keep on hitting your mercs every single round while they get out of breath and have to recover.

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Having the fatigue cap reduced by 10% therefore made Bjarni a borderline prospect for continuing service in the Face Manglers, especially since his fatigue score wasn’t that great to begin with. By outfitting him in light chainmail and giving him a spear (which costs less fatigue to attack with compared to other weapons) he went into battle with a comparable fatigue cap to comrades wearing heavy brigandine and wielding hammers and maces.  I was honestly not expecting Bjarni to live all that long, so I gave him the worst of all chances: I stuck him on the rightmost position of the frontline of my shieldwall. Most enemy types in Battle Brothers will try to outflank you if they can, and thanks to my formation position it was always the right flank that caught their flanking attempt. Bjarni often ended up fighting two or three bad guys at once, and fighting multiple opponents in Battle Brothers is very bad since an enemy will get a to-hit bonus for each additional enemy adjacent to your merc. You get the bonus too, of course, so a fairly large part of Battle Brothers tactical battle map gameplay is about getting all of your mercs into position next to a target before all of them launch their attacks, but that wasn’t going to help Bjarni. I gave Bjarni three, maybe five battles before he was inevitably dragged down and murdered, and the only reason he was still in the company was because I considered everyone else to be less expendable than him.

Except Bjarni didn’t die. Against the odds, Bjarni endured.

Bjarni survived the desperate forest engagement where Magnus, a promising swordsman with twenty-five kills in as many battles, died after sustaining nine separate hits holding the left flank against three Brigand Raiders; I intended to withdraw him to a safer spot but a momentary lapse of concentration left him standing within range of a brigand pikeman, and that was that for Magnus. Bjarni survived the company’s first encounter with the vampiric Necrosavants, unlike my crossbowman Goodwin; like Bjarni he got back up after having his throat savaged, but unlike Bjarni the permanent effects of the injury were so severe I immediately fired him with a severance payment of a few hundred crowns4. Bjarni even survived the cataclysmic battle against a full two lines of Ancient Legionaries, where I rather foolishly forgot to bring any weapons that did non-piercing damage; the heavily-shielded skeleton frontline laughed off my spear attacks while the backline did terrible damage with their bladed pikes. I lost Hartmut and Other Giselher5 during that battle, both of whom had been with the company for more than fifty days.

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Not Bjarni, though. It would be poetic to say he came out of the battle that crippled half of the company unscathed; in fact he took a bad pike hit and I had to pull him back from the frontline and rest him a few days while he healed up. But he didn’t die, and he didn’t sustain any more permanent injuries.

Again, this should have been somewhat predictable. Bjarni had an innate talent for Melee Defence boosted further by the fact that he was Tiny, which granted a +5 bonus. His enforced wearing of lighter armour types was turned into something of an advantage by his Dodge perk, which converted a portion of his Initiative score into yet another defence bonus; Initiative controls when a given merc will act during the turn order, and it decreases as a battle goes on and your mercs get puffed out, but this was less likely to happen to Bjarni thanks to his lighter weapons and armour. Finally, the company had acquired its first batch of heater shields (which have a higher melee defence bonus) and Bjarni’s shield perk boosted this bonus even further to the point where he had a melee defence of 80 or 90 once he popped his Shieldwall ability. His paper-thin armour meant he was in big trouble if he ever got hit, since armour in Battle Brothers functions as an additional ablative pool of health points that’s often much greater than a character’s actual HP — typical physical HP pools run from around 60 to 90, while the heavier armours provide 200 or even 300 points of armour HP that take the brunt of the damage from most weapons. Bjarni’s chain shirt provided a comparatively titchy 110 points of armour, allowing him to soak up maybe two hits before his armour was used up and he had to be pulled off the line — but he actually had to be hit first in order for this to be a problem. And thanks to that ridiculously high Melee Defence stat, he rarely ever was.

Bjarni therefore became an almost permanent fixture on the right flank of the line, having proved the suicide spot was survivable. There’s a reason I set up my formation this way: knowing that 80% of all flanking attempts were going to go around the right-hand side meant I could stick my heavy zweihanders down there. Two-handed swords are one of the most versatile weapons in the game and are perfectly designed for breaking enemy lines; nearly all active offensive and defensive abilities in Battle Brothers are determined by the weapon you have equipped rather than the perks you’ve picked when you level up your mercenaries (most of which provide passive bonuses, although there’s the odd active ability sprinkled in), and equipping the two-handed sword grants three types of offensive action. There’s a bog-standard single-target attack, whose major selling point is that it costs less fatigue than the other two attacks, and Split, an attack that strikes two tiles at once in a straight line ahead of you and hopefully strikes any annoying polearm-wielders the enemy has in their backline — polearms have a range of two tiles and can strike over friendlies standing in the shieldwall, and they also do a rather shocking amount of damage thanks to their high armour penetration value, so it’s good to kill any enemies equipped with them ASAP. It’s the third attack ability that causes me to station zweihanders on my flanks, though; Swing cleaves through three tiles adjacent to the merc using it, except it must start in a tile containing an enemy, and if you fire it off it’ll strike everything in those three tiles regardless of whether the target is a slavering Orc Young or simply a hapless fellow mercenary who happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Using Swing in the middle of the frontline is therefore impossible without hitting at least one of the mercenaries stationed next to the Swinger, which is why I put my zweihanders on the flanks where they’ll have far more space to Swing properly. Having most enemies come in on the right flank simply provides them with a target-rich environment and, if the zweihanders survive long enough, plenty of experience to level them up into murderous killing machines. My second zweihander managed to survive twenty battles before getting disembowelled by a Necrosavant (to add insult to injury he came back as an undead wiederganger the very next round thanks to certain unholy forces being at work in the land — and he was still clutching the damn zweihander, ensuring a lot of panicked arrow fire as I tried to take him out before he could use it) but the first, Englebert, had been with the company from the very beginning and got ridiculously good at his job, with a Footwork ability that let him ignore enemy attacks of opportunity to position himself for maximum carnage and a Berserk perk that let him follow up with an additional attack if he managed to kill anyone at all during that turn. The giant Englebert and the diminutive Bjarni formed a partnership that lasted a hundred battles: enemies would try to swarm Bjarni, miss all of their attacks, and then Englebert would step forward one tile and behead two or three of them in one go.

Of course Battle Brothers doesn’t let you have it all your own way. The above tactic was good against most enemies, but dropped off in effectiveness if they were wearing heavy armour, or had shields. One nice thing about Battle Brothers is that while your mercenary company does face off against many different types of fantastic beasties in battle, there’s actually not all that many of them that have innate, fantastic abilities; mostly they’re playing by the same equipment-driven rules as you, meaning that killing a zombie Fallen Hero who is clad in armour and holding a rotted shield simply requires you to overcome the armour and the shield, after which the Fallen Hero is basically just a regular zombie with an unusually good weapon. Axes are your main tool for taking out shields as they have a special Split Shield attack that’ll ruin it in one or two strikes. For armour you’re going to need a can-opener of some kind, and this is where the interplay between weapons and armour comes in.

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There’s many different types of weapon available in Battle Brothers — swords, flails, maces, hammers etc. — and all of them grant special abilities like the mace’s Stun attack or the Flail’s attack that has a 100% chance to strike the head if it hits. However, an important secondary consideration is how effective each weapon is at dealing with armour. Take swords and hammers, as they lie at either end of the scale: a mid-tier sword will do 40-45 points of damage to an unarmoured target, which for a one-handed weapon is quite a lot. However, if the target is wearing armour then it’ll only do 80% of its damage to the armour, with a further 20% making it through the armour to the target’s base HP pool. Chopping away at somebody wearing 150 armour points of chain — which is a mid-tier armour — with a further 70 points of base HP is going to take many, many turns. Compare this to the mid-tier hammer: it does only 30-35 points of base damage, but it does 200% of that base damage to the target’s armour, and then a further 50% of that damage will go through and be applied to the target’s actual health, making the hammer 250% effective against an armoured target and killing them more than twice as fast as the sword-wielder would.

All weapons fall somewhere between swords and hammers on the armour penetration spectrum, and thanks to the special attacks they grant they all have their uses — one of the most impressive things about Battle Brothers is that there isn’t a single piece of equipment in the game that’s an outright dud. However, if you’re fighting an armoured target you really cannot beat a hammer, which is why Bjarni carried a military pick in one of his Quick Item slots and Englebert had a gigantic two-handed sledgehammer slung over his back. For getting rid of an enemies’ shield they had to rely on the backline of archers, all of whom had the Longaxe polearm as a backup weapon that let them destroy shields from behind the frontline, but once the shield was gone one hit from Englebert’s sledgehammer was usually enough to destroy their armour outright, inflict some sort of crippling injury on them (any attack that causes more than 15 points of damage to a target’s base HP has a chance to cause a temporary injury that’ll cripple one or more of their stats), and stagger them to the end of the turn order (an innate ability of the sledgehammer).

As the company grew more successful they graduated from the graveyard-clearing and caravan-guarding contracts to undertaking patrols for noble houses to keep the roads bandit-free. Interestingly you’re paid for each enemy you kill while on these contracts, and the noble houses don’t check particularly thoroughly on where the heads come from, so you’re free to take some quite sizeable detours to find roaming enemy packs on the world map — or, even better, clear out one of the randomly-spawned monster lairs you can run across while exploring the wilderness between population centres. The noble houses aren’t complete idiots and will at least impose a cap on the number of heads you can bring back at once, but while the gold is nice any mercenary company who has gotten to this point has usually graduated past the point of basic subsistence (your mercs consume food, use up tools to repair your busted equipment, medical supplies to heal wounds, and require a generic supply of ammo to replenish their quivers, as well as a daily pay packet) and on to saving up for some high-quality yet exorbitantly-priced equipment. However, clearing those monster lairs can sometimes yield some incredibly valuable prizes: pieces of unique equipment that, while non-magical (in keeping with Battle Brothers’ low fantasy setting), are always mastercrafted items that are slightly better than the very best item of that type available. I found one such piece of equipment after clearing out an undead-infested keep inhabited by a Necromancer and twenty zombies — this was a comparatively easy fight given the reward, which was a mastercrafted coat of plates with higher armour and lower fatigue penalty than normal.  I handed this off to Englebert, as his constant charging into the thickest clumps of enemies he could find meant he could use all the armour he could get.

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Eventually the Face Manglers got rich enough and well-equipped enough that they stopped taking losses for a full twenty days. However, where this would mean you’d outpaced the difficulty curve in something like XCOM, Battle Brothers still has one last card to play: its endgame crises. These are meant to provide some endgame challenge to a company that has reached the point the Face Manglers had, and there are three types: an Orc Invasion, a Noble House War, and an Undead Scourge. An ominous foreshadowing event indicated that I was in all likelihood going to get the Undead Scourge, and so it proved as legions of undead came boiling out of the wilderness to the east of the civilised area around the coast. In game terms the Undead Scourge had five effects:

  1. Instead of encountering the various undead types in discrete packs, I was now encountering them all mixed up together. Wiedergangers are way more dangerous when they’re backed up by a Necrosavant.
  2. There were far more packs of undead roaming the countryside, making it downright dangerous to camp and rest wounded mercs — I had to run away from a couple of encounters because my company was in no state to fight a followup battle.
  3. Said packs can lay siege to — and permanently destroy — settlements on the world map.
  4. You can get special high-value contracts from noble houses to clear out particularly thick concentrations of undead or to break those undead sieges.
  5. Wiedergangers and Fallen Heroes always have a chance to come back from the dead even if there isn’t a Scourge on. However, the Scourge being in effect meant that any recently-dead human from any faction has a chance to come back as a zombie — and that includes your own men.

This significantly changes things up at precisely the point where the game was in danger of becoming routine. Beating the crisis is simply a matter of winning enough battles against the undead (I’m not sure if it’s possible to lose, although I suppose every settlement being destroyed by the undead would make continuing with the campaign impossible) so the end does feel a little bit anticlimactic. Perhaps it’s appropriate that there’s no evil wizard or undead warlord behind it all, though — or perhaps there was, and they were killed by a more heroic bunch than your little band of brothers. You’re mercenaries, after all. You should never fight for free.

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A Battle Brothers campaign doesn’t end once you beat the endgame crisis. You can keep going if you want, and if you persist for another forty or fifty days one of the other crisis types will eventually fire, and then the last another fifty days after that. If you really want to test your mettle there’s a couple of secret challenges that are so unfairly difficult that they’ll challenge any endgame company. In the end, though, there are only two ways to conclude a Battle Brothers campaign. One is to have everyone die in battle, which results in a Game Over. The other takes a leaf out of Darklands’ book6: you can at any time retire from your mercenary company, at which point the game will take stock of your achievements and tell you how the company fared after you left, with a couple of specific blurbs for key company members. The higher your Renown at the end of the game, the better this outcome will be. And so it was for the Face Manglers: beating the Undead Scourge had given the company enough renown that it persisted after my retirement, and I can only assume Bjarni and Englebert continued their ass-kicking partnership on the right flank for many battles to come.

In a lesser game this might strike me as being a very low-effort way to resolve the campaign. Battle Brothers is absurdly focused about everything it does, though; Overhype have done really well to stay on target and resist making it too sprawling and overwrought, and the tactical battle segment is one of the finest pieces of design I’ve seen in a long, long time simply because it knows exactly what it wants to be and spends all of its effort being that rather than adding in pointless extraneous shit. Given that, and the general theme, ending the game with a little organic narrative sting for your small band of mercenaries rather than a cataclysmic battle against the Evil Whatever or defeating the noble houses to take over the kingdom instead seems very fitting.

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Thanks to this focus Battle Brothers is already the best game I’ll play this year, and my opinion of it only increases as I spend more and more time with it. The head-and-shoulders art style for the battle segments might seem a bit odd at first glance but it works incredibly well, providing you with all the information you need about your mercs’ (and your enemies’) equipment. The armour art in particular is incredible — nobody in this game faffs about in full plate armour, and Battle Brothers instead chooses to render more cost-effective armour types like lamellar and coats of scales in extremely well-drawn detail. The music is also really, really good — facing down a slowly-advancing double line of Ancient Legionaries while this plays is nothing short of bone-chilling — and the general sound design is excellent, capturing the thuds, grunts and bubbling death-gurgles of combat like nothing I’ve played before. Aside from the blind hiring issue I mentioned a few thousand words ago I have only one other niggling complaint about the game, and that’s that you can only adjust your mercs’ formation outside of the battle segments, which when combined with the randomly-generated battlefield terrain can sometimes lead to one of your mercs being spawned into a very deep pit that he then has to waste time clambering out of.

That’s literally the only other complaint I can make, though. There are some bullshit enemies (hello, Brigand Marksmen) but they can be taken out fairly safely if you prepare appropriately; while recovering from a particularly heavy loss of veteran company members is so daunting that you might feel like restarting the game instead, but it is perfectly achievable as long as you have the crowns to fund it. Battle Brothers is significantly less hand-holdy than other, more mainstream tactical RPG games, and it takes some time and a bit of googling to figure out how everything works. Once you’ve done that, though, you come to understand just how elegant Battle Brothers really is, and just how well all the moving parts fit together to produce one of the most engrossing strategy games I’ve ever played. Please, do go and buy it if it sounds remotely interesting. Overhype did the Early Access thing right with this one, and it really does deserve to be successful — and if it is, that increases the chances that a) they’ll continue to support Battle Brothers post-launch and b) that they’ll go on to make other things like it. And I very much want to see more games like Battle Brothers. It’s absolutely fantastic.

  1. Which is another quality they can have; be careful about taking these guys to taverns.
  2. This, unfortunately, is *not* modelled by Battle Brothers.
  3. Brain damage is actually desirable on the right mercs, as it increases their resolve and makes them far less likely to break.
  4. If you make people redundant without pay the rest of the company gets very upset.
  5. One of Battle Brothers’ few flaws is a comparatively limited lexicon of names for your mercs; fortunately you can rename them to whatever you want to avoid confusion.
  6. Overhype say they’d never heard of Darklands until they were significantly into development of Battle Brothers. I’m inclined to believe them simply because most developers who are inspired by Darklands tend to shout it from the rooftops, but there are very deep similarities between the two games in terms of both theme and content.
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2 thoughts on “Thoughts: Battle Brothers

  1. Adam says:

    Really enjoying it. Not quite sure how archers work yet – half the time the LOS seems to be blocked and I don’t understand why, but a great game.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This was a great read!

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